The crowd, gathering at 1870 court next to Carnesecca Arena, was much larger than usual. Fans milled about, grabbing spoonfuls of a buffet dinner and chatting about the upcoming game with the DePaul Blue Demons.
No one at the buffet knew about the injury to Shamorie Ponds that would keep him on the sidelines for the game. Fans, instead, were concerned about the ability of the Red Storm to rebound against a taller Blue Demon team.
One fan thought, “we have to run and push the offense in order to counter DePaul’s strength on the boards.”
Just prior to the buffet closing, word spread that Ponds would not be playing (Bryan Trimble Jr. started in his stead).
The information came from a fan checking a blog, which reported that Ponds was injured, although the injury did not appear to be overly serious.
When the fan who stated “we have to run” was asked if missing Ponds would change his strategy, he did not pause.
“We still have to run,” was his reply. His friend added, “we will miss Mikey Dixon tonight.”
A couple with whom we had spoken a few games earlier greeted us and we broke the news. Asked who would pick up their game to make up the lost production and they agreed: “Justin Simon.”
In the arena, just before the game began the Red Storm players huddled, arms around each other as if to say, “It’s our game now.” The demeanor on the Johnnies’ faces seemed to say, “We’re ready.”
The results did not match the demeanor.
With a full house of fans, most clad in white for the “white out” Carnesecca Arena was rocking from the very start of the game.
Despite the energy the fast start for the Johnnies was not to be. DePaul jumped out to a 4-0 lead and the Johnnies did not score for over two minutes. The shutout was ended by a Bryan Trimble three at 17:46, his only points of the contest. Less than a minute later DePaul was up 8-3.
Mustapha Heron drove down the left side of the key and was fouled laying the ball in, the first of six St. John’s free throw attempts on the night.
DePaul’s star player Max Strus was being bottled up by Justin Simon. Despite holding Strus scoreless for the first ten minutes, the Blue Demons found other ways to score.
The front line of 6’9” Paul Reed and 6’9” Femi Olujobi relentlessly attacked the offensive glass, scoring putbacks or taking down offensive rebounds to provide second chance opportunities.
Sedee Keita, the one Johnny whose size allowed him to compete with DePaul, entered the game at the 15 minute mark. Keita made his presence known by blocking a Jaylen Butz layup only to have Reed take down an offensive rebound. Keita had four blocks in 18 minutes of play, but did not score, while turning the ball over twice.
Justin Simon and LJ Figueroa asserted themselves in the half, with Mustapha Heron and Marvin Clark II scoring on jumpers to bring St. John’s close, and eventually to a short-lived lead.
During the 2:19 official time out a student walked through the stands calling out “let’s go Johnnies” to hype up the crowd. It worked; the chant once again began to fill the arena. On the scoreboard, the Red Storm were being outrebounded 23 to 18 and outshot from three point distance 43% to 20%.
Simon took a rebound and came down the floor with 56 seconds in the half, down by four. After passing the ball around the perimeter for 26 seconds, Figueroa launched a 35-foot three from the left that was all net.
The Blue Demon lead was down to one and the Blue Demons called time out.
A play was set up with Eli Cain driving down the right side of the lane with time expiring. As he launched a four footer from the right, Keita came over with a clean block, keeping the deficit for the Red Storm at one.
Marvin Clark and Mustapha Heron were not shooting well and offensive production, particularly from out deep, was needed from one of them. Fans felt the defense was strong except for not blocking out consistently allowing several offensive rebounds by the Blue Demons.
The Red Storm seemed to have defensive energy; Strus was held to five points and Keita had made two timely blocks.
A surprise offensive performer and onetime Red Storm recruit, Femi Olujobi, was on his way to a 27 point game.
As the Johnnies completed their warm ups for the second half, both Heron and Clark set themselves up outside the three point line. Heron fit five threes in a row and Clark hit three, just before play began. One fan stated, “Did you see them shoot? They’re ready”.
The Johnnies took the lead 31-30 on a Heron jumper but Strus immediately responded for DePaul taking the lead back. The Johnnies kept fighting back with a Clark steal. He drove to the basket and was fouled, hitting one of two foul shots to tie the score.
At the 15:49 time out DePaul led 37-35.
During the time out St. John’s honored Dr. Solly Walker, the first African American to play for St. John’s in the early 1950’s. Although Dr. Walker is deceased, a large contingent of family members appeared as fans stood and clapped when Dr. Walker’s achievements on and off the court were shared.
After the Blue Demons took the lead for good, DePaul was attacking the basket with Olujobi and Paul Reed; a fan stated “they look quicker than the Johnnies.” The Johnnies were hardly pushing the pace and the number of their fast break baskets was unusually minimal.
Clark went on a run, scoring seven points over a minute and a half to drop the DePaul lead to 58 to 54 at 7:27. DePaul called a timeout and the energy level in the stadium was rising. During the timeout the dance team kept it up with a marvelous performance. As the teams went back out on the court the crown chanted “defense … defense.”
But the Johnnies never got closer and the Blue Demons came away with an eight point victory, even though a Red Storm full court press created some anxious moments for DePaul in the last minute.
As the squads exited the floor the Johnnies met at mid court, arms around each other with Shamorie Ponds in their midst. Fans could see Marvin Clark speaking to the team for a minute or so. The team left the court with their heads up to a supportive cheer from the cheerleaders and some remaining fans.
Takeaway One: Who steps up?
Fans hoped someone would step up in Shamorie Ponds’ absence. The team has been based around the five-man rotation, with little contribution from the bench.
Justin Simon did step forward. It was he who was given the assignment to guard Max Strus and he did more a capable job. Along with Bryan Trimble Jr., the pair held Strus to 14 points on 4/13 shooting, below his 18 points per game average average. Simon also scored 20 points and, with L.J. Figueroa, led the team on the offensive end.
But the team has become dependent on Ponds in more ways than one. Ponds has become a dependable three-point shooter and that skill was sorely missed in the game last night. Also missing was the Red Storm’s fast break attack, often led by the ballhandling and vision of Ponds.
Take one away the linchpin of the team, and the chemistry understandably suffers; the quality of the coaching staff’s ability to adjust is magnified. Coach Mullin stated correctly after the game, “this one is on me.”
Takeaway Two: What did we learn about the bench?
We learned that Sedee Keita can provide some of what Tariq Owens can do… protect the rim by blocking shots.
We also learned that Keita appears awkward in the Red Storm offense. Opportunities near the rim came on quick passes from Johnnies driving to the hoop and dishing off. Keita had difficulty handling these passes. With practice, perhaps he can become more comfortable and can give a useful presence on the offense.
Bryan Trimble did a nice job playing defense on Strus, even though he gave away three inches. Trimble also took down six rebounds, second on the team next to Clark’s 12. In 31 minutes of play he had no turnovers. He hit the first basket for the Red Storm, a three, but did not score again.
He has done everything else expected of him. Can the staff help develop his offense?
Greg Williams has his chance with Mikey Dixon leaving the team. In 10 minutes of play he did not score but had a block and a defensive rebound. In warmups, he has been hitting jumpers and, in previous games, he has contributed with slashing drives to the rim. The potential is clearly there although he had a mediocre game against DePaul.
Takeaway three: Live and die with the three
St. John’s shot 26% percent from three-point distance (5/19). This team is not going to win with this type of performance against any Big East team.
The Johnnies live and die on the success of the guards attacking the basket then pitching out to the corners for open threes.
This was absent without Ponds last night.
There were segments in the game when Simon and Figueroa had open lanes to the basket through the paint. Why so open? Because unlike when Ponds attacked the rim in previous games, DePaul was not collapsing on St John’s drivers. When Simon or Figueroa passed out to shooters, rarely were they able to get the good looks which a driving Shamorie Ponds was able to provide.
Shooting became more difficult when DePaul shifted into a zone, similar to the impact of the Villanova zone earlier in the week. Forced from driving, the Red Storm struggled from the outside.
Marquette went to zone to protect 5’11” Markus Howard from being posted up by taller Johnnies’ guards. The Marquette zone was shredded by St. John’s shooters. What did the Johnnies do correctly that game, that they haven’t done in other games?
Shamorie Ponds status is described as being day-to-day. The team needs to prepare for the possibility that he will not be available for the Creighton game on January 16th.
Fans should remember the Butler game at the end of last season. With Ponds on the bench Simon, Clark and company stepped up to give the Johnnies a thrilling overtime victory.
Was there time to plan for Ponds unavailability in last night’s game? There certainly is time now.
This team can win without Ponds.
The talent is here.
Keep the faith and support. Go Johnnies.